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Program aims to spark grass-roots revival of New Ken

| Sunday, March 29, 2015, 11:33 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Community activist Brian Uhler, center, talks with Indiana University of Pennsylvania students Juwon Busari, left, of Southwest Philadelphia, and Dan Welsh, of Glenside, both senior regional planning majors, about the history and architecture of downtown New Kensington as they toured parts of the city on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Indiana University of Pennsylvania senior regional planning major Dan Welsh, left, of Glenside, and community activist Brian Uhler talk about the possibilities for downtown New Kensington as they and other IUP students toured the city on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Sean Bridgen of New Kensington is a Penn State New Kensington advising program coordinator who is involved with the Better Block New Kensington initiative.

Sean Bridgen wants to improve New Kensington one block at a time.

Bridgen has lived there all of his life, except when he left for college. Today, the Penn State New Kensington advising program coordinator chooses to live in the city.

Now, he's also part of Better Block.

New Kensington is the most recent of more than 60 cities in three countries to sign on to Better Block, an idea that started in Texas and is spreading across the country.

The idea is to show what improvements can look like in one block, get people interested and encourage development from the grass roots.

Advocates are excited to give it a try in New Kensington between Ninth and 10th streets and Fourth and Fifth avenues, down from the Ninth Street Bridge.

Numerous efforts will lead to a demonstration in May.

Better Block co-founder Andrew Howard said his Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas didn't have a good reputation in 2010.

“All you heard was, ‘Who got shot?' ” he said. “People were moving away, and no one wanted to use the name Oak Cliff. Now we have restaurants and T-shirts with the name.”

What changed?

“People worked to make the place irresistible,” Howard said.

Instead of first trying to attract jobs to improve a community, as most cities have been trying, Oak Cliff residents found ways to make their community restore its reputation and make it a place where people wanted to visit and invest.

Jobs and a better community followed. And they stayed.

“What I have seen, every place, no matter where, has a pool of talent. In most places, it leaks out. It goes elsewhere,” Howard said in a phone call from Harvard University.

“People used to think there was a creative class of people that moved around. Well, every place has it. It just needs to be brought to light.”

An urban planner with about 14 years experience in transportation and land planning, Howard is completing a fellowship at Harvard to document changes accomplished by Better Block.

He's scheduled to visit New Kensington in April.

Better Block Day

John Turack, a Penn State Extension educator who is part of the group, said numerous things are planned before Better Block Day in May.

One occurred last Tuesday when an Indiana University of Pennsylvania geography and regional planning class looked at the block. The class will come up with development ideas.

Professor D. Whit Watts said two of the students are city residents. Evan Tobin is a graduate student who is active in regional planning, the Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth (WEDIG), and Better Block. Undergraduate student Cody Nolen is helping the city with a graphic information system inventory.

“Cody and Evan were key players in making New Kensington the focus of our current efforts,” Watts said.

Watts said Howard is on target by encouraging local people. Sadly, New Kensington residents who might start businesses or otherwise contribute are leaving the area after they graduate from college.

“Cities are competing for human capital,” Watts said. But Better Block-style development can attract people — their success attracts other success.

While Better Block showcases possibilities, its backers — the WEDIG revitalization group — are aiming for much more.

“Our objective is sustainability,” said Mayor Tom Guzzo. “We want this to be a gateway into the city.”

Improvements in New Kensington can also help WEDIG members in Arnold, Lower and Upper Burrell and Allegheny Township, he said.

Better Block also will remind people New Kensington isn't the only city challenged by economic development, said police Chief Tom Klawinski, who encourages growth and is positive about the city.

Lack of development is “a plight across the country,” he said.

Bridgen agrees that the city can bounce back.

“The city is still viable,” he said.

New Kensington has real estate and utilities, space to add businesses and industry, and three places where workers can be educated. People also want to improve their city, Bridgen said.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724- 226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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